Fifth grade was also the year I remember being tested in the Presidential Fitness Challenge, which establishes children's athletic abilities through activities such as sit-ups, a one-mile run, pull-ups, a shuttle run, and an agony-inducing-if-you-have-tight-hamstrings stretch called the V-sit. I also recall other impossible challenges such as a rope climb and hurdles, although this might just be a mash of memories from the overall humiliation that was my grade school physical education. I was able to crush the academic aptitude test but couldn't even fake my way into passing this one — too slow in the mile, too stiff in the V-sit, and I never managed a single pull-up (I still haven't.) It was a tough pill to swallow as a ten-year-old, but I swallowed it well: "So I'm a math geek who can't run a mile. Fine. I'll just stop placing any of my self-worth in my athletic abilities. Who cares if I can't pull my chin up over a stupid bar? It's a useless ability anyway."
The fact that I used to show aptitude for math and completely abandoned it after eleventh grade doesn't bother me at all, and yet my childhood athletic failures do. I remember tripping over hurdles, dangling helplessly from the bottom of a rope, and struggling mightily for the ten-minute mile I needed just to receive a passing grade in seventh-grade P.E. There are a lot of athletic adults who were bad athletes as children, but I was really bad. Whenever I experience setbacks in my athletic pursuits, I can't help but wonder why I pour so much time and energy into activities in which I never showed the slightest aptitude. Children who don't test well in math aren't expected to excel in advanced placement calculus, and yet fitness culture establishes that anybody can achieve athletic awesomeness if only they work hard enough.
This week, I went running every day but one, because my elbow injury from last weekend kept me off my bike. The daily trail runs ranged from six to ten miles; the first couple I ran with my left arm in a sling at a slightly slower pace than usual. Then I started to feel better, removed my sling, and picked up the pace. On Friday evening, Beat and I went for a steep run up Black Mountain, a trail that gains 3,000 feet in five miles. I felt great after I started the descent and ran hard, until I rounded a tight switchback going a little too fast. My right foot slid on the moon-dust-gravel that dominates Bay-area trails in August, and I went down hard. The impact tore up the skin on my right knee and hip, and if that wasn't enough, I finally took a fall that I rolled out of only to land hard on my injured left elbow. Owwwww.
The two times I've hit the deck hard this week showed me the main mistakes I am making, including running with my shoulders back and legs too far in front of me, so when my feet slip it's almost impossible to recover my balance. Also, I brake too hard during steep descents, which is why I slip in the first place. I know I need to loosen up, lean forward, and resist the urge to lock up my knees. But as I limp-jogged down Black Mountain with an immobilized left arm, a throbbing hip, and blood streaming down my dirt-crusted leg, I wasn't thinking about ways to deprogram my naturally bad running technique. I was thinking about ways to deprogram the part of my brain that wants my poor, awkward body to run.
Three and a half slow miles down Black Mountain was enough to numb the pain a bit and cause me to back-pedal on my decision to quit these body-battering hobbies forever. Tonight Beat and I are preparing for a 50K training race on Sunday in Stinson Beach. Steep Ravine has 7,000 feet of climbing, and is about 95 percent singletrack with a mixture of shaded Redwood forest mud, roots, rocks, and classic Marin Headlands concrete dirt coated in August dust — it's a mean 50K. To get ready I've packed my soft elbow pads, trekking poles (under the guise of "UTMB training," but really because I need the support), a shin brace (because the "splints" are still a bit of a problem), and a roll of gauze to deal with the painfully raw road rash on my right leg. Yeah, that's stiff and bruised, too. I feel like a walking disaster, who can only hope Steep Ravine doesn't become yet another running disaster.
I don't want to talk about UTMB right now. It starts in four weeks. Yeah. Beat says I should start taking yoga classes as one approach to solving my balance issues. I admit when I think of yoga, the first thing I picture is my ten-year-old-self in the Presidential Fitness Challenge, sitting with my legs spread out and reaching, so earnestly, for that ruler between my feet — and not coming remotely close to touching it. Do I really need to go through that humiliation again? Why didn't I just stick with math?
But in case the mild sarcasm isn't apparent in this blog post, I'm not actually going to give up running just because I'm comically bad at it. I am going to keep working on my issues. I'm probably going to get a lot more road rash, bruises, and injuries — hopefully all minor. I might start going to yoga classes although I am serious about pubic humiliation. I am also serious about being terrified of UTMB but ... ah, well. What doesn't kill me can only leave me with more disfiguring scars. If only my fifth-grade gym teacher could see me now.